“There’s honesty in your eyes.” That’s how one of the interchangeable upper-class businessmen that populate Starz’s The Girlfriend Experience assesses the show’s main character, Christine Reade (Riley Keough), a premium-priced escort wielding her trade in the Chicago metropolitan area. In the precise context of his evaluation (that is, a monetary arrangement in which Christine has been hired to embody the ideal romantic and sexual partner), it’s a statement that rings hollow, much like Christine’s own variation on the same sentiment, habitually uttered across her client interactions: “I’m just being honest.” Such turns of phrase register in the moment as little more than occupational niceties, but The Girlfriend Experience‘s tricky maneuver, as steered by directors Amy Seimetz and Lodge Kerrigan, is to devote such prolonged scrutiny to Christine’s profession—from the talking to the fucking, and with equally thorough consideration of both—that these easily spotted ironies and seeming white lies reveal themselves as the exact opposites. Maybe there is honesty in Christine’s eyes, after all.
Seimetz and Kerrigan’s first stab at mainstream television proceeds with series producer Steven Soderbergh’s 2009 feature of the same name as its narrative and aesthetic model, and they’ve clearly studied up on his coolly anthropological late style. The show’s action occurs exclusively in office buildings, apartments, hotels, and restaurants of the most exquisite architectural modernism, with immaculately dusted reflective surfaces and symmetrically arranged décor implicitly demanding that anyone within these spaces hold themselves with a comparable degree of sharpness. And true to their overseer’s contempt for perfunctory shot-reverse-shot editing patterns, Seimetz and Kerrigan, who swap helming duties on a more or less episode-by-episode basis, exhibit a fondness for covering scenes in wide establishing shots that weigh principal and background talent equally, creating a sense of ambient surveillance only compounded when one master shot is followed with yet another spatially disorienting angle from some other distant corner.
These arty tactics are part of a Soderberghian lexicon designed to withhold rather than clarify character psychology, to put the audience in a position of observation instead of emotional investment. It’s an approach that made the feature, which deceptively stunt-casted former porn star Sasha Grey and then proceeded to leech any sensationalism from the premise, rewardingly cerebral in its attention to call girl work as a symptom of a late capitalist system in which everyone’s always either a producer or a consumer, a professional or a client. But in its serialized form, The Girlfriend Experience is practically obligated by market demands to generate narrative momentum and spectator involvement, and it’s here that Seimetz and Kerrigan bring a crafty spin that both satisfies and complicates expectations.
The first eight episodes of this 13-part drama, which begins with Christine as a bright but financially stumbling law student enticed into high-class prostitution by a friend, Avery (Kate Lyn Sheil), vacillate between the protagonist’s various lives as a student, a socialite, a freelance escort, and, once she’s hired at a reputable law firm, a high-pressure intern. Keough affects a Kabuki-like composure and impenetrability during these episodes, striding with a stiff gait and only occasionally flashing calculated smiles. Christine’s m.o. with clients is to dispassionately blurt back pithy questions and answers intended to keep them talking, while psychically performing without hesitation whatever’s asked of her. It’s hard to gauge whether she really even excels at the eponymous phenomenon, as her conversational aloofness is so off-putting that it’s a marvel that none of these schmucks seem to recognize how transparently she’s phoning it in.
But what happens in “Blindsided,” the season’s phenomenal ninth episode, sets about a paradigm shift in our perception of Christine, who’s just been wronged by a blackmail sex tape from a jealous ex. The entire episode is set in the firm where Christine works and where all of her colleagues have witnessed the video. For the first time in The Girlfriend Experience, the camera goes handheld (tellingly, Seimetz, who made 2012’s frenetic Sun Don’t Shine, directed this episode) so as to intimately and responsively chronicle Christine’s turbulent processing of her humiliation. This is where the series weans off its unflappable anthropological remove and approaches the pitch of a melodrama, with Christine’s personal pursuits suddenly registering like heroic assertions of autonomy against an array of judgmental outsiders. And while the episodes prior to this point adhere to an inconsistent chronology, defusing cliffhangers with months-long ellipses quietly clarified in dialogue, Seimetz and Kerrigan stick much more firmly after “Blindsided” to a linear series of events, eschewing time-jumping vignettes in favor of longer scenes in single locations.
This shift from a top-down examination of a milieu to rapt character study also occasions deeper implications, chief among them the idea that Christine’s sex work is less a byproduct of victimization at the hands of a patriarchal business world than simply the clever commandeering of circumstances in the name of personal desire. Christine evidently just enjoys having sex and holds no moral qualms about how often and with whom it occurs, which raises the possibility that her excessive chilliness on the job might merely be a strategic ploy to expedite the path to fornication. As it nears its bitter end, parting on an episode that spits in the face of conventional “redemption” while introducing a queasily altruistic element to Christine’s work, The Girlfriend Experience emerges independently of its cinematic predecessor in its somber portrait of a woman owning her chosen profession even as, by nature of its still-rampant disreputability and status as a solo venture, it drives her into isolation. That’s not an unrelatable quandary.
The Girlfriend Experience’s sharpest asset is its sound design, which subtly breeds discomfort in its combination of deadened room tone and intimately recorded voices, then fills the silences with snatches of a haunting Shane Carruth score composed of buzzing drones and looping synth lines. All these sounds are transferred with tremendous clarity and given the ideal high-low dynamics for living room viewing. Longtime Steven Soderbergh crewmember Steven Meizler, meanwhile, handled the show’s cinematographic duties, curating a narrow Soderberghian palette of overcast blues, snowy whites, and impersonal fluorescents that come across as crisply on Blu-ray as they did on cable.
The three featurettes included in this package are all promotional fluff, chopping together predictable sound bites from the show’s major players (Amy Seimetz, Lodge Kerrigan, Riley Keough, and Kate Lyn Sheil, among others) with seductive clips from the episodes—which is to say, not exactly gratifying supplements to such an ambitious show. A commentary track would have been nice, and certainly it’s easy to long for some comment from Soderbergh, but instead we get the bare minimum.
Despite its punctilious aesthetic of detachment, The Girlfriend Experience exerts a sneaky emotional pull.